BORN: 1875, Khojane, Basutoland (now Lesotho)
DIED: 1948, Teyateyaneng, Lesotho
NATIONALITY: Basotho, Lesotho
The Traveller of the East (1907)
Thomas Mofolo is considered the first great author of modern African literature. Written in the Sesotho language, his three novels are concerned with the radical effect of Christian teachings on traditional African society. His fame is largely attributable to the last of his three published works, Chaka (1925), a narrative written in Sesotho and based on the life of the Zulu king Shaka, who lived from 1788 to 1828.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Student to Teacher Mofolo was born in Kojane, Basutoland (now Lesotho), a small country surrounded by the Republic of South Africa, on December 22, 1876. The third son of Christian parents, he was educated at local religious schools and then sent to Morija to work as a houseboy for the Reverend Alfred Casalis, who headed the Bible school, printing press, and the book depot there. In 1894 Casalis enrolled Mofolo in the Bible School, and two years later Mofolo entered the Teacher Training College, earning a teaching certificate in 1899. He then began work as an interpreter at the printing press, but the operation was suspended during the South African War (also known as the Boer War or Anglo-Boer War), which began in October 1899 and continued until 1902. Mofolo studied carpentry for two years and taught at various schools until 1904, when he returned to Morija as secretary to Casalis and proofreader for the press.
Exposed to a variety of books at the Morija Book Depot, Mofolo read religious works, African and European histories, and novels by such writers as H. Rider Haggard and Marie Corelli. Several missionaries encouraged him to write works of his own, and his Christian allegory Moeti oa bochabela (translated as The Traveller of the East), published in 1907, became the first novel written in Sesotho. His next novel, Pitseng, the story of two exemplary youths inspired by an African Christian teacher, was published in 1910.
Writing and Publishing Chaka While working at the book depot, Mofolo also began research for a novel based on the life of the Zulu warrior-king Shaka. Traveling to Pietermaritzburg, the former Zulu capital Mgungundluvu, Mofolo visited Shaka's gravesite and collected historical data, recollections, and legends which had been passed on through oral literature. Mofolo submitted the Chaka manuscript to the Morija printers, but the missionaries were deeply divided over whether to publish the work. Despite acknowledgement of the novel's extraordinary qualities, those who opposed it cited their fear that the novel's depiction of traditional Africa would entice the indigenous reader to return to a non-Christian way of life. After a campaign by supporters and the excision of some material, Chaka was finally published in 1925.
Life After Writing Discouraged by the missionaries' qualms about publishing Chaka, Mofolo left for South Africa and gave up writing. For several years, he held different jobs. He worked as a recruiter and labor agent for diamond mines, sugar plantations, and large farms. For a time he managed a postal route, and he later ran a trading store. In 1933 Mofolo returned to his homeland and purchased a large farm from a white landowner. The sale violated the Natives Land Act of 1913, which prohibited blacks from owning or leasing land outside of the so-called Native Reserves, and the government seized the property. In 1940 the ailing and impoverished Mofolo retired, living on a small pension. He suffered a stroke in 1941, from which he never fully recovered, and died on September 8, 1948, at Teyateyaneng, Lesotho.
Works in Literary Context
Chaka, Mofolo's most highly regarded work, is a fictionalized account of the Zulu leader Chaka (Shaka). The novel is often interpreted as a depiction of the negative moral consequences of paganism unchecked by Christian ethics. At the same time, respect for traditional African customs and beliefs pervades the work, especially in the heroic portrayal of the Zulu king Chaka. This respect caused missionary publishers to suppress Mofolo's manuscript until thirteen years after its completion. Today the novel is considered an epic tragedy of literary and historical significance and has served as the model for numerous subsequent works about Chaka, one of the most celebrated legendary figures in African literature.
Stylistic Elements in Chaka Chaka is not a historical novel in the true sense, as many commentators have claimed; the rise and fall of the historical Chaka is used only as a point of departure. The work is a romance that has connections with various oral and modern literary genres, such as the folktale, legend, fable, saga, fantasy, and myth. There are allegorical features as well. By contrasting oral traditions and legends with historical basis and fictitious elements and characters, Mofolo adds his unique style and poetic prose to this literary epic.
Mofolo employed several diverse stylistic elements in Chaka. He used the rhythm and narrative devices of African praise poems, which were performed to honor Bantu monarchs; the didactic elements of African oral narratives, which traditionally served as vehicles for moral instruction; and biblical terminology, which reflected his missionary schooling. Because the novel form is not intrinsically African, Mofolo also utilized some of the conventions of the Western novel. He combined these various stylistic forms throughout Chaka, shifting from one to another when appropriate for dramatic or thematic emphasis.
Mofolo's use of witch doctors in the novel demonstrates the extent to which these various traditions are skillfully synthesized. Essential to the portrayal of Chaka's drive for power, the role of the witch doctor has been interpreted as a literal commentary on good and bad witch doctors in the tribal community; a symbolic revelation of Chaka's personality traits and true desires reminiscent of the witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth; and an allegorical rendering of a Mephistophelean devil with whom Chaka makes a pact.
Chaka demonstrates Mofolo's respect for Chaka and traditional African ways of life, unlike the negative depictions of these subjects by white historians. For this reason, Mofolo has profoundly influenced such African authors as Leopold Sedar Senghor, Abdou Anta Ka, and Djibril Tamsir Niane, whose works go beyond his novel in celebrating Chaka's military and political genius.
Works in Critical Context
Thomas Mofolo is the most important African writers of the first quarter of the twentieth century. He still ranks with African Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, and Najib Mafuz, and with others who are equally famous such as S. E. K. Mqhayi, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, André P. Brink, and Breyten Breytenbach. The early translation of Chaka into English and French spread Mofolo's fame as much as it did that of the Zulu king (although not at home) and led to a flood of dramatic works on the historical Shaka by Francophone writers in West Africa.
Interpretations of Chaka Chaka has been called by many critics a masterpiece of world literature. Regarded by contemporary reviewers as an “Africanized” Christian tract, the novel has more recently been assessed as a sophisticated fusion of Christian philosophy, African praise-poetry and myth, and Western literature.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Mofolo's famous contemporaries include:
Gertrude Stein (1874–1946): An American expatriate writer who lived and worked in France for most of her life, Stein contributed to the development of modern art and literature.
D. W. Griffith (1875–1948): Pioneering film director best known for his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
Pancho Villa (1878–1923): Mexican general who led the first successful popular revolution of the twentieth century.
Upton Sinclair (1878–1968): American author whose novel The Jungle contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.
There are many Christian readings of Chaka as an illustration of the battle between good and evil. In such interpretations, Chaka's death at the hands of his brothers is considered just punishment for his sinful paganism. Many critics, however, note that much of the so-called Christian morality in the novel is in fact based on African traditions in which nature, the tribal community, and the gods are indivisible. Chaka's illegitimacy, for example, is fateful according to this tradition because it opposes tribal law, a law established before the introduction of Christianity to Africa. Similarly, Chaka ensures his destruction when he murders his mother, which breaks the ultimate taboo against shedding the blood of kin.
Ben Obumselu contends that a critical reading of the work as Christian morality cannot sufficiently account for the novel's complexity, which is most apparent in the portrayal of Chaka's psychological development. This careful attention to the events of Chaka's early childhood and his reaction to them does not excuse his behavior. However, it provides an explanation for his actions that goes beyond that of a simplistic pagan symbolism promoted by those who read the novel as a Christian allegory.
Several critics have also commented on the sympathetic nature of Mofolo's eulogy for Chaka and the Mazulus at the end of the novel. Daniel P. Kunene, for instance, believes that the passage reveals Mofolo's conscious or unconscious loyalty to Sesotho culture and its traditions of heroism and virility. Albert S. Gerard similarly considers the eulogy a passage wherein Mofolo sets aside religion to reflect on the Mazulu empire, pondering the “past greatness of his race and its present subjugation.”
A challenging new interpretation of Chaka has come from Kwame Ayivor, who contends that Mofolo has adapted the imbongi, or African praise song, in a way that allows him simultaneously both to praise and to denigrate his protagonist: “By creating this disparity between the traditional voice of praise and the concealed anti-legendary tone bent on subverting the voice of the traditional imbongi, Mofolo introduces a dialectical battle between the two versions of Chaka from the beginning of the novel.
However one interprets Mofolo's Chaka, it remains one of the most important works by an African writer of the early twentieth century.
Reactions to Chaka When Chaka appeared in December 1925, it divided its readers into two camps, as it had the Morija missionaries before publication. Between 1926 and 1928, eight letters from readers appeared in Leselinyana. The readers' reaction was threefold: admiration, rejection, and puzzlement. Their admiration was based on the composition, stylistic grandeur, character depiction, and overall merit of the work as fiction. Rejection—although voiced by only one highly outspoken reader, N. R. Thoahlane, who called the work “chefo” (poison)—was on moral grounds. The puzzlement was elicited by the combination of history and fiction in the work. Some readers were able to accept the license Mofolo took with actual events. Others pointed critically to the historical inaccuracies in the novel.
Another group of readers objected to the implied offense to the Zulu crown in Mofolo's novel and asked whether it was necessary to humiliate the great Shaka to such an extent. Scholars have speculated as to whether the negative portrayal of the Zulu hero could have its origins in an antipathy that Mofolo had toward him because of the suffering of the Basotho people during the Difaqane, the wars of destruction the historical Shaka brought over southern Africa from about 1821 to 1833. Daniel P. Kunene concludes in his Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose (1989): “As things now stand, Mofolo's ‘purpose in writing this book’ must of necessity, forever remain a matter of conjecture, like ‘the great mysteries’ of Chaka's life which are ‘beyond the people's understanding.’”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Mofolo's novels are all concerned with the effects of European colonists and Christian missionaries on traditional African society. Here are some other works with similar concerns:
Mhudi (1930), a novel by Solomon Plaate. This historical novel depicts the attempts of an African tribe and a group of Boers to attain their freedom.
Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a novel by Alan Paton. This novel, centered around a black Anglican priest from South Africa, explores various themes in the development of South African apartheid, including the breakdown of traditional tribal communities.
Things Fall Apart (1958), a novel by Chinua Achebe. This novel traces the influence of British colonialism and Christianity on a traditional African community by telling the story of a leader of a Nigerian village.
Nervous Conditions (1988), a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga. This novel explores clashes between traditional African cultures and the cultures of the Western colonial powers by telling the story of a young black girl living in a small Rhodesian village.
Responses to Literature
- Mofolo's main novel features Chaka (Shaka) as the main character. What are the dangers of using such a figure? What are the advantages?
- Mofolo struggled for thirteen years to get his novel Chaka published. Use the Internet and your library's resources to determine if present-day authors face the same kinds of difficulties or censorships. How are these censorships similar to or different from that of Mofolo's?
- In Mofolo's time, people primarily learned about local customs and historical figures from literature. Today, the Internet gives people easier access to this kind of information. Use the Internet to locate information about Shaka, and write a short character sketch of this figure.
- Mofolo's writings concentrate on the problems faced by Africans both before and during European colonialism. Write an essay discussing the effects of colonialism on African countries.
Franz, G. H. The Literature of Lesotho. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press, 1933.
Gérard, Albert S. Four African Literatures: Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, Amharic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Kunene, Daniel P. Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1989.
Ntuli, D.B. and C. F. Swanepoel. Southern African Literature in African Languages. Pretoria: Acacia, 1993.
Ayivor, Kwame. “Thomas Mokopu Mofolo's ‘Inverted Epic Hero’: A Reading of Mofolo's Chaka as an African Epic Folktale.” Research in African Literatures (Spring 1997).
Blair, Dorothy S. “The Shaka Theme in Dramatic Literature in French from West Africa.” African Studies (1974).
Gérard, Albert S. “Relire Chaka: Thomas Mofolo, ou les oublis de la mémoire française.” Politique Africaine (March 1984).
Mangoaela, Z. D. “Thomas Mofolo (Writer)” Basutholand Witness (1951).
Swanepoel, C. F. “Historicity and Mofolo's Chaka: A Comparison of Text and Possible Sources.” South African Journal of African Languages (1988).
___. “The Leselinyana Letters and the Early Reception of Thomas Mofolo's Chaka.” South African Journal of African Languages (1989).